The Vale of Vineyards

The Vale of Vineyards

Grapes, writes Kalhana, ‘which were scarce even in heaven were common in Kashmir’

Harud, the harvesting season of Kashmir starts from mid-September to mid-November. The soil and climate of Kashmir have always been suitable for horticulture. Viticulture or winegrowing is the cultivation and harvesting of grapes. In old days Kashmir was known for its luscious grapes. Grapefruit, its Kashmiri name Dach, is a fleshy citrus fruit which is highly nutritious and has numerous health benefits. These days, though, people harvest grapes only to keep a share for themselves and to give away the rest to neighbours, relatives and friends. Except for a few areas of Kashmir, grapes are not grown for commercial purposes.
Throughout Kashmir’s history, ruling dynasties and monarchs took interest in the cultivation of grapes. But today neither the government nor the people make any effort to revive this age-old practice. The grape plant is found in many a home garden in Kashmir, but people don’t think of cultivating it extensively.

The Vale of Vineyards
The majority of historians agree with the fact that Kashmir produced many varieties of fruit in abundance. Kings, nobles, merchants and religious saints together planted every kind of tree, whether fruit-bearing or shady, to promote garden culture in Kashmir. Fruit cultivation, especially grape cultivation, in Kashmir has been practised since ancient times. We have a glimpse of the aristocratic ashrama life of the Saiva gurus standing on a mandapa with a goblet full of wine in the middle of a vineyard (M.A. Wani, Islam in Kashmir). Many nobles had their fruit gardens. Raja Amar Singh and Diwan Amar Nath during the Dogra period maintained their vineyards.
Grapes, writes Kalhana, “which were scarce even in heaven were common in Kashmir”. There is a reference to grape, grapevine, and vineyards in many ancient chronicles of Kashmir. Kalhana’s Rajatarangini mentions: “The town of Martanda (present-day Matan) was swelling with grapes during king Lalitaditya’s time.” Huen Tsang, who visited Kashmir in the seventh century CE, makes it clear that Kashmir produced abundant fruits and flowers (Samuel Beal, Si-Yu-Ki). The 11th-century Kashmiri poet Bilhana while praising the beauties of his homeland mentioned grapes growing in abundance in Kashmir.

“One side of it yields saffron,
lovely by nature,
the other grapes, pale as the sweet cane
that grow alongside the Sarayu”
(Bilha?a, Vikrama?kadevacarita; trans. Whitney Cox)

Fruits formed a regular article of diet in Kashmir. Among the principal fruits that were eaten during medieval times, pears, cherries, plums, apricots, grapes, apples, and peaches were prominent. An excerpt from the book, ‘Kashmir Under The Sultans’, says, “Fruits was grown in such abundance that they were rarely bought or sold. The owner of a garden and the man who had no garden were all alike, for the gardens had no walls, and no one was prevented from picking the fruits.” This claim is supported by medieval records like Tarikh-e-Rushdi and Tarikh-e-Firishta. Different kinds of drinks were made from fresh fruits; among them Sharbat Angoor was quite famous. The grapes were also used for making jams (murabba).
Grapes were cultivated all over Kashmir, and vineyards were found at every nook and corner of the valley. The vines were allowed to grow on the poplars and mulberry trees (Mutamad Khan, Iqbal Nama Jahangiri). Since the local grapes were not of superior quality, Akbar introduced new varieties like Sahibi, Kishmishi, etc (Jahangir, Tuzuk-i- Jahangiri). Bagh-e-Dilawar Khan was a famous site for vine culture and there were more than 18 varieties raised in this orchard (Moorcraft & Trebeck, Travels in the Himalayan Provinces of Ladakh and Kashmir). Superior varieties were cultivated in Lar and Raipur (Hassan Shah, Tarikh-i-Kashmir).
While Abul Fazl praises some fruits and considered them better than the tropical fruits of the plains of India, he held an adverse opinion about grapes. He said, “Though grapes were in plenty, finer qualities were rare”. This view is supported by Bernier who says, “With the introduction of better grafts from foreign countries and by paying more attention to planting and soil, the Kashmir fruit would attain the same degree of perfection as the French.”
The quality of indigenous grapes was improved over time. In 1590 CE Muhammad Quli Ifshar, the Daroga of the gardens, grafted Kashmir fruit trees with peaches brought from Kabul. The experiment succeeded and grafting has since then been widely practised. Zafar Khan Ahsan, the governor under Shah Jahan, also improved the quality and taste of cherry, plum, peach, and grapes by using better grafts and planting imported saplings from Persia and Kabul (P.N.K. Bamzai, Culture and Political History of Kashmir, Vol 2).
During the Sikh and Dogra periods, thousands of acres were covered with vines in full bearing. Moorcraft proclaimed, “There are said to be eighteen or twenty varieties of grapes in Kashmir of which four were of foreign introduction. These are the Sahibi, of an oblong shape and red colour; the Maska, round and yellowish-white; the Hoseini, of the same colour but long; and the Kishmish, yellowish-white or green, round and seedless; this last is small but the other three are large, the Sahibi sometimes measuring four inches in its largest circumference. They are all thin-skinned, and grow in considerable bunches; those of the Maska is not infrequently of the weight of five or six pounds. The Sahibi and Maska are both fine table- grapes; wine and raisins might be made from the other two. These sorts are usually cultivated on high horizontal trellises of wood. The indigenous vines are generally planted at the foot of poplar and run up to the height of fifty or sixty feet, bearing an abundance of fruit. The grapes are commonly thick-skinned and rather rough and astringent, but juicy”.
There are six varieties of grapes mentioned in ‘A Gazetteer of Kashmir’ by C. E. Bates which was published in 1873.

Grapes in the market
It seems the difficulty of terrain and transport discouraged fruit growers to export fruits from Kashmir. Besides, the perishing nature of pulpy fruits, which lost their taste and texture within weeks of harvest, did not attract the merchant class. These delicate fruits were too fragile to be transported from one place to another. Due to the long journey, they used to spoil before reaching the market.
We don’t have enough sources to know about the export of fruits from Kashmir. But a few references are there to make us believe that grapes were exported, though not on a large scale but in limited quantities. Abul Fazl in his work Ain-i-Akbari mentions that “Kashmiris bring grapes on their backs in long baskets.” Though not a primary article of trade, fresh fruits and dried raisins in limited quantities were included in the export list (Jahangir, Tuzuk-i-Jahangiri). It means both grapes and dried raisins were in demand in mainland India during the Mughal period.
Niccolo Manucci, an Italian traveller, mentions large quantities of vegetables and fruit being exported to the Indian market. During the 17th century, the fruit merchants reached as far as south India (Kalimatu Taibat, Ed. Inayatullah Khan). Grapes used to sell at 108 dams a maund in Mughal times (Abul Fazl, Ain-e-Akbari).

The heaven of grapes
Sind valley in the past as well as in the present day is known for its finest grapes. Walter R. Lawrence in his famous book ‘The Valley of Kashmir’ mentioned a few vineyards at the mouth of the Sind valley. He also praised the white and red grapes of the state vineyard at Raipur during the Dogra period in Kashmir. Thakur Janak Singh, a military commander, had built a bungalow there known as Bungli Bagh which is now in ruins. This is the present-day Repora village located in Lar block in central Kashmir’s district Ganderbal – the grape town of Kashmir.

From Vine to Wine
Grapes were particularly valued for brewing wine. Drinking wine seems to have been quite popular since the ancient period. The wine and grapes in Kashmir were local products. The tantric rituals require the use of liquor, hence as a prestigious item of consumption, Kashmir preserved its wine culture. Kalhana says, “Both men and women were addicted to drinking”. The wine, cooled and perfumed with flowers, was appreciated as a delicious drink. It is written in Nilmatpurana that wine has been recommended especially on ceremonial occasions.
There are many references which show that making and drinking wine was not prohibited during the Sultanate period even though it was strongly disapproved of by the orthodox section of the society. It was a common sight to see laymen and Brahman priests alike in a state of drunkenness during Hindu festivals. Despite the Islamic ban on alcohol, the Muslims, who participated in these festivals, also freely partook of wine. Most of the Sultans and their nobles imbibed liquor regularly (Jonaraja, Dvitiya Rajatarangini). Zainul Abidin took it in moderation, but Haider Shah was a confirmed drunkard, and as a result, neglected his state duties. Hasan shah was in the habit of arranging drinking parties in his palace, or in the boats on the Jehlam, and used to get drunk on these occasions (Srivara, Jaina Rajatarangini).
Locally the liquor was called ‘mas’ (Jahangir, Tuzuk-i-Jahangiri). Soft liquor of various types was used by all (Mohammad Sadiq Kumbu, Amal-i-Salih). It was distilled from grapes, barley, rice and mulberries (Mutamad Khan, Iqbal Nama Jahangiri). On festive occasions, there was free consumption of liquor by the participants. Anguri and Qandi were the cherished drinks of singers (Nath Pandith, Gulshan-i-Dastur). But there appears to have been a substantial decrease in liquor consumption during the latter half of the 17th century (Majid Mattoo, Kashmir Under The Mughals).
Although the Islamisation of Kashmir took many centuries, this tradition gradually discontinued among people but was kept alive by the ruling class. For a short period, Afghans stopped making wine but the tradition was later restarted by Sikhs.
The consumption of alcohol is prohibited in Sikhism but drinking culture is often associated with Punjabi culture. G.T. Vigne who visited Kashmir in 1835 mentioned in his treatise: “When I was invited by Sikh governor Mihan Singh to join his party at Shalimar garden, I found him along with his officers in a state of drunkenness. The colonel, as he was called in Kashmir, occasionally took a little of the strong spirit of the country, which is distilled from crushed grapes left to ferment, and is much preferred to the finest wine that Europe could produce, which would not be considered strong enough”. Mihan Singh is said to have ordered all the grapes harvested in Kashmir to be brought to the city for manufacturing a generous wine. Khahad signifies a place where wine was made and deposited.
“In the surroundings of Brinial-Lamar of Devsar (Kulgam) the vine is to be seen hanging in festoons about the trees, nurtured and cultivated by the natives of the district, who formerly made wine there in great quantities. At Muskhahad (Devsar) a great number of very large forty-thief-power earthen jars have been dug up at different times, and are now used by the natives as receptacles for their grain, and it is supposed that many more are buried there, they being discoverable only by a search beneath the surface of the ground, and it is supposed that wine was buried preserved in them” writes G.T. Vigne.
Moorcraft writes, “After harvesting grapes in October, they were kept in shallow earthen vessels till spring, then they were applied to the fabrication of wine, vinegar and brandy. The manufacture is ill-conducted, and the liquor is kept in bottles, which are stopped only with plugs of wood, twisted bark, or paper. No wonder therefore that the beverage is indifferent, but such as it is, it is sufficiently good to show that, with proper treatment and care, the wines of Kashmir might be made to rival many of those of Europe.”
Dogras took great interest by investing huge amounts to boost this industry. On the shore of Dal Lake, Dogra rulers occupied 389 acres of land for vine cultivation. The vines were introduced from the Bordeaux district (the famed wine-growing region in France) in Maharaja Ranbir Singh’s time. To make as good as Medoc and Barsac varieties of wine, a high-priced distillery plant was imported and set up at Gupkar on Dal Lake. Two Italians, Signor Benvenuti and Signor Bassi, were employed to look after vineyards and wine factories (Walter R. Lawrence, The Valley of Kashmir).

The writer has a Master’s in History from the University of Kashmir. He also writes poems in English as well as Urdu. [email protected]

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